Jewish Maghrib Jukebox

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Marseille's North African Lower East Side

For North African music lovers, Damien Taillard's blog Phocéephone is a must. Damien, originally from Toulon but through and through a Marseillais, has dedicated his time to documenting the thriving North African music scene in Marseille from at least the 1950s through the end of the 1970s. His research focuses on the Cours Belsunce quarter, one of Marseille's oldest neighborhoods, a hub of North African Jewish and Muslim immigration for at least the last 50 years, and home to its Arabic music scene for decades. Damien has patiently and diligently collected North African records produced and recorded in Marseille and has posted many of these to his blog.

Damien and I had emailed back and forth for some time before I told him I was coming to Marseille. We met for the first time in person at Galette, the record store he works for in the alternative Cours Julien neighborhood. We chatted for a long while. Damien kindly came bearing gifts including a number of Algerian and Moroccan Jewish 45s of which he had multiple copies. I also picked up a rare Cheikh Zekri LP on the Dounia label from the store before making a plan with Damien to meet the following week. We were going to try to meet with the master oudist and native son of Marseille (via Oujda in Morocco) Raymond Azoulay aka Raymond Oujdy. Raymond was a giant to me and many others. He started his own labels in Marseille (Oujdiphone and Oujdisques), played with the likes of Reinette l'Oranaise and Blond Blond, and had a deep respect for his Muslim musical counterparts.

Raymond Oujdy on his label Oujdisques circa 1979
Damien called me the next week and told me that Raymond was unavailable but that he had another idea. He proposed a tour of Cours Belsunce and I quickly jumped at the opportunity.

We met at the famed Alcazar Theatre now turned public library and the site of a future exhibition Damien is putting together on Cours Belsunce. As we meandered through the tiny streets filled with wholesale fabric stores, inexpensive housewares merchants and store front places of worship I couldn't help but compare it to New York's Lower East Side.

Belsunce was the first French home that many Jewish immigrants from North Africa knew. They were joined there by their Muslim counterparts. Most of the Jews have since moved out of the neighborhood but a few still operate shops there. We stopped by one such shop, Chez Youssef, before venturing on. I could imagine Youssef and other merchants closing their shops for midday prayer. Youssef and others would then hurry to a number of neighborhood synagogues, non-descript from the outside but filled with men chanting emotional liturgy on the inside.

Chez Youssef - one of the few remaining Jewish shops in Cours Belsunce
Of those Jews and Muslims who descended on the neighborhood quite a few were professional musicians in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. They quickly regrouped in Belsunce. They formed record labels like Sudiphone, Sonia Disques, and Tam Tam, brought together orchestras, and turned Belsunce into a North African music mecca where literally thousands of records were released. Those passing through would record here as well including the late Jo Amar. Today, almost none of it remains, not even the thriving cinemas and bars once a mainstay of the neighborhood.

Judah Sebag records Adon Olam for Disques Tam Tam in Marseille (1950s)

What do remain, thankfully, are the addresses. As we came to a stop at a corner, Damien pulled out a stack of 45s. Printed on the labels were their past locations. Damien soon guided us to 9 Rue Des Dominicains once the home of the Tam Tam Disques mini-empire. Tam Tam, under the direction of its Armenian owner, was one of the most prolific labels of the neighborhood. The label recorded everything from West African to North African chaabi to Hebrew. Judah Sebbag, Abraham El Fassi, and others would record for Tam Tam over the years. I snapped a picture of what once was and we continued on. Everywhere we went I was struck by this feeling of nostalgia that I couldn't shake.

The former home of Disques Tam Tam at 9 Rue Des Dominicains
Where dozens of record stores once existed are now but a few cd shops. Lots of Arabic and Berber music with electronic keyboards and synthesizers. I soon longed for the day when you could pick up a Raymond Oujdy EP off the shelf and take it for a spin.

Raymond Oujdy. Ya Robi Tahaye - Sadate O Begin - Oujdisques - 1979.

Before I left New York I uploaded this Raymond Oujdy track called Ya Robi Tahaye - Sadate O Begin. For me this song represents a bygone era. Here Raymond pours his heart into a song about peace between Egypt and Israel in Moroccan Arabic. And here is a taste of what North African Marseille sounded like in 1979.

Damien and I visited a few other places before ending our journey. I couldn't thank Damien enough for working to preserve this heritage. At our last stop, we came upon a shop with large one Euro cassette bins out front. And there to my great surprise I found something. There amongst Kabyle and Chaoui pop and various forms of rai you could still find North African Jewish chaabi buried deep in Cours Belsunce. I dug in and rediscovered a long neglected tape of a young Pinhass (Pinhass Cohen), still in its original packaging. The title track was kaftanek mahloul. Naturally, I purchased it and immediately felt nostalgic once again for a time I could only imagine. A time when Cours Belsunce was full of Jewish and Muslim musicians, Armenian producers and record label visionaries, bars serving mahia and boukha alongside Ricard and lots of sound.

Pinhass Cohen cassette found in Marseille